Edmund Blunden, Shelley: A Life Story.

[Review of Edmund Blunden, Shelley: A Life Story. Queen's Quarterly 53 (1946): 517-18.]


The memory of Shelley has been vitiated in many minds by Amelia Curran’s portrait, by Matthew Arnold’s account of “a beautiful but ineffectual angel”, and by the popular but inaccurate belief that the boat in which Shelley lost his life was called Ariel.  Stimulated, no doubt, by the spectacular performance of Messrs. Carter and Pollard, an attempt has recently been made to expose a large-scale plot to beatify Shelley: the reviews of that attempt in PMLA and TLS show upon what dangerous ground the biographer of Shelley treads.  But even though scholarship has not yet prepared all the materials for the definitive life, there has long been urgent need for a just portrait, especially for ‘the general reader’.  Mr. Blunden has given that portrait; and, more than that, he has written a story that moves with compelling vigour.

In his Preface the author states clearly his purpose: “I have not had Shelleyans in my mind during the composition of the pages following more prominently than the general reader, to whom I have hoped to give the clearest narrative I could of a most adventurous and many-sided life, unified by a deepening faith in the artist’s duty and power in human advancement.”  In limiting himself to this purpose, he moves with the skill and assurance of a mature scholar through the intricate, confusing and sometimes distorted materials that beset Shelley biography.  Not prepared to interrupt his narrative with a detailed examination of all the controversial points, he treats each crux with sane and fully informed judgement “after prolonged consideration, and while we await the result of patient enquiry into the genuineness of several professed documents”.

Shelley, as presented by Mr. Blunden, is a man living and credible, generous, urgent, complicated, idealistic but possessed of an unexpected practical application.  In the child who loved to appear in disguise, and who enchanted his sister with stories of “a Great Old Snake who picked up a living about the garden”; in the young man who could express intelligent opinions upon pigs and matters of farming, we see nothing of the effeminate dreamer.  We see Shelley “at a desk among files, elevations, maps and ledgers” making a sea-wall at Port Madoc, and even collaborating with one Reveley to build a steam-boat at Pisa.  There is an air of fantasy in these episodes, as in the Irish venture and the plan to release at Lucca a priest condemned to the stake; but mixed with his fierce championing of individual liberty there is a quality of hard practicality.  Through it all we see the man who not only could but must write Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound and Swellfoot the Tyrant.

The affairs of Shelley’s heart, which the twentieth century has tended to discuss with almost as sly delight as did Shelley’s contemporaries, are unfolded in an unhysterical and convincing manner, with a marked absence of the moral comment which can so easily distort the picture.  This method would be less convincing if Shelley and the other protagonists were less lifelike.  Mr. Blunden, by a variety of methods, has brought us into the presence of the people important in Shelley’s life: Harriet, Mary, Claire, Emilia, Jane; Hogg, Goodwin, Byron, Hunt, the piratical Trelawny, and even such fantastic outriders as Francesco Pacchiani and Tommaso Sgricci.  It is a strange company, yet real; the women beautiful, intelligent, self-deceived, pathetic; the men boorish, cynical, sinister – and sometimes even devoted friends.  We see Shelley moving through the changing combinations of these people and can understand something of the complexity of his life from day to day.  We see a Shelley neither irresponsible nor humourless, dealing with the somber and voracious shadow of Godwin; we see him staying on in Leghorn within a few hours of his death trying to induce Byron to make adequate arrangements for Leigh Hunt.  One by one Fanny Imlay, Harriet, Mary’s two children, Byron’s Allegra and the mysterious child at Pisa meet their deaths, and we experience the perplexity and distress of a man who felt that an atmosphere of destruction “wrapt and infected everything” connected with him.

Shelley’s poems are discussed in their biographical setting.  The passages of sensitive criticism make one regret that Mr. Blunden has not allowed himself, and us, the luxury of wandering from his theme a little farther in this direction.  The style has the distinction and flexibility of spoken language; and if occasionally a sentence requires a second reading it is because the printed words cannot always convey all the inflections of the voice that is to be heard unmistakably in every page.

It is hoped that a later edition will include the apparatus criticus that will make this book as indispensable to the scholar as it is instructive and compelling to the general reader.